The Life Interview With Goh Kheng Long

The Life Interview With Goh Kheng Long: Music-maker for the stars

Singapore musician Goh Kheng Long not only works behind the scenes, but is also concert music director and keyboardist for the biggest names in Chinese pop

On popular Chinese micro-blogging platform Weibo, there is an account under the name of Singaporean musician Goh Kheng Long.

Posts from the account mention top Mandopop stars such as David Tao and Wang Lee Hom - artists Goh has worked with - which prompted Wang to follow it.

But when he mentioned it one day, Goh realised that someone else had set up a fake account in his name.

He says with a laugh and grudging admiration that the details on the account of who he had met and when were "fairly accurate".

His wife Tay Ting Ting, 47, adds: "I thought they usually do this kind of thing for stars, but not for behind-the-scenes music people."

The account has since been deleted, but some posts are still visible.

To my dad, if you play the drums, where are you heading? Also, my mum loves to sing. If I play a tuned instrument, then I could accompany her singing.

GOH KHENG LONG on why his father steered him away from the drums and towards the Electone organ

Goh, 50, might work behind the scenes when it comes to producing, composing and arranging music, but he is also highly visible as the concert music director and keyboardist for the biggest names in Chinese pop, including Hong Kong's God of Songs Jacky Cheung and Taiwanese diva A-mei.

When stars introduce members of their band at concerts, Goh is usually mentioned last as the most important person on stage, apart from the artist.

A-mei once announced to the audience that she had devised a segment for him to sing, just as a prank, because in his own words, "I'm really no singer".

In person, he is warm and cheerful, modest and earnest. So it is easy to see why she would get a kick out of teasing him.

He is committed to Cheung's A Classic Tour until the end of next year. It kicked off in Beijing in October last year and included three sold-out nights at the Singapore Indoor Stadium last month.

This interview takes place at his terrace house in the western part of Singapore, before he goes off for the next few shows in Shanghai.

Cheung, 55, sings his praises to The Straits Times over e-mail.

He first asked Goh to be his concert music director for his world tour from 2002 to 2003. He was impressed by the arrangements the latter had done for him - including the hits Shen Hai (Deep Sea) and Xiang He Ni Qu Chui Chui Feng (Wanna Go For A Walk With You) - so getting him on board as music director was a "natural and perfect choice".

As concert music director, Goh is responsible for the music of the entire show, from the preparation to the eventual performance.

Specifically, that means different things for different artists and can include putting together the band, song selection, re-arranging songs to fit the show concept and composing instrumental music for specific segments where required.

He adds that the job is also very much about troubleshooting.

"Say there's a problem with the staging and the riser goes up, but fails to come down. As music director, I look up there and say my prayers first. Should I, at the end of the song, just stop and let the artists stay up there and look stupid? Or I could easily extend the music by sustaining a chord.

"The audience can see there's a malfunction, but it doesn't help if the music goes silent."

Usually part of the band as the keyboardist, Goh adds: "Of course, I will endeavour not to play a single wrong note, but I would rather play with the right emotion and gusto and slip a bit.

"Very often, we musicians just want to make sure we hand up our homework and score 100 marks without making a mistake. But music is more than that."

His musicality, professionalism and passion are reasons the best in the business want to work with him, while his easygoing demeanour is why they choose to hang out with him outside of work.

Cheung says: "He is serious only when he is at work. He is a funny guy most of the time, telling jokes that are a bit dry, teasing other people and even making fun of himself and Ting Ting, his beloved wife and boss."

Goh and Tay - who started Long Story Music together - once had dinner with Cheung, his wife and their elder daughter, who was about two years old then, in Melbourne. They have also been to A-mei's home, where Goh would happily spend time playing with her two golden retrievers.

He has stayed at Tao's Los Angeles pad and Wang has stayed at Goh's digs in Singapore, which come equipped with a studio that eliminates even the vibrations from passing road traffic.

With local singer-songwriter JJ Lin, whom Goh has worked with since his first album, Music Voyager (2003), and first tour, Just JJ World Tour (2006), the two clicked over football.

Touring can take a toll physically and one thing Goh has done is to introduce recreational sports during down time to keep up fitness levels and encourage team bonding. It helps that concerts are held at stadiums, so it is convenient for the musicians and crew to use the fields.

On the Taipei leg of Cheung's current tour, Lin, who is based there, joined in for soccer games at Goh's invitation.

Performing with the biggest stars and jet-setting seem like a dream job and Goh is grateful for the doors that music has opened for him.

He says: "I've seen too many friends who are good musicians and it's such a struggle for them. For what I do and the takings I have, I can't ask for more."


His love of music was evident early in his life. At four, he was "the clown destroying everything" as he banged on the furniture at home with a pair of chopsticks.

His 84-year-old father, then a businessman in the furniture industry, decided to channel his middle child's energy towards Electone organ lessons at Yamaha music school.

Goh's mother, 80, is a housewife. His elder brother, 54, was an accountant, now semi-retired, and his younger sister, 48, is a housewife.

When he was eight, Yamaha awarded him a scholarship that helped him through his music education for the next eight years. In that period, he learnt arrangement, composition and harmony from local and Japanese instructors.

Music was so much a part of his life that studies took a backseat.

There was one day in Secondary 2 when he went to school and wondered why everyone was studying. It turned out to be the start of the mid-year examinations.

Goh made it through Anglo-Chinese Junior College and wanted to start working in pubs after his A levels. And because his father had "freaked out" over his decision, he felt the need to prove himself as quickly as possible.

As his family could not afford to pay for a formal music education, life after national service consisted of teaching at Yamaha music school from noon to 7pm, gigging at a pub until about midnight and then holing up at a friend's place as a freelance music arranger to learn more about that aspect of the industry.

He would sleep for only four or five hours a day.

He was later roped in as keyboardist for local band Jive Talkin', which performed at Hard Rock Cafe after it opened in Singapore in 1990.

Acts such as Eric Clapton and Miami Sound Machine would make a beeline for the venue after their gigs and Goh not only met them, but he also got to play with them.

"That kind of opportunity was special because you're jamming with the top guys from the West."

The money was good, but his night-owl work hours meant that he did not get to spend much time with Tay, who was then teaching English and physical education in a secondary school.

He decided to quit the band in 1993 and move more into studio production as they were planning to settle down. The two met when he was 21 and she was doing course coordination at Yamaha Music.

The first two to three years were tough. Unless you produced or arranged a hit song, people were not interested in hiring you. But if you were not hired in the first place, you could not produce or arrange a hit.

Local singer Mavis Hee's album Regret (1996) changed everything.

Goh arranged most of the tracks on it and it became a huge hit in Singapore. The album's producer and songwriter, Chen Jiaming, was then approached by Taiwanese record label What's Music as it was interested in distributing the album there.

Chen, 52, stood his ground when they sought to engage a big-name arranger to rework some songs. He says: "(Kheng Long) had put his blood and sweat into it and he did a good job. While it was risky to insist, I felt it was the right thing to do."

Goh would go on to arrange songs for Tao, Wang as well as for home- grown pop star Stefanie Sun. Among the accolades he has won is one for Best Music Arrangement from Hong Kong TVB8's Music Awards in 2001 for Sun's classic hit, Cloudy Day.

The irony of an Anglo-Chinese School (ACS) boy, who is not typically known for being fluent in Mandarin, getting into the thick of the Mandopop industry is not lost on him. And there were some embarrassing moments as a result of the language barrier.

Knowing that Goh's Mandarin was not good, a Taiwanese producer once said to him in English that he wanted a song to sound "like dog blood".

So, Goh went off to look for music by a band called Dog Blood. What the producer had wanted was for the song to "sa gou xie", literally to "splash dog blood", which means to be melodramatic.

His Mandarin is much better these days. However, back then, he had to rely on his wife for help.

As Cheung pointed out, the two of them are very close. Tay sits in at the interview as well and Goh would often turn to her to clarify a point, ask her to elaborate on something or just to tease her.

They are partners in life and in business. In 2001, they set up Long Story Music - a playful spin on his name - because despite all the work he was getting, he did not seem to be making money.

He admits: "I find it difficult to talk about money. It's so much easier for Ting Ting to call up people and talk about outstanding payments."

This means that the couple, who have no children, get to be on the road together as she takes on the role of band manager for concert tours.

He says sweetly: "We look out for each other, whether as husband and wife or as friends."

His first gig as concert music director was for the late Taiwanese folk singer-songwriter Ma Chao-chun. The Mandopop concert scene was starting to get more lively in Taiwan in the late 1990s and Goh was asked to take on Ma's mini Taiwan tour.

"It was good training in that I'm not confronted immediately by a crowd of 20,000. These were crowds of 3,000 to 5,000 and you're not talking about a three- hour show. It was about an hour," he recalls.

That led to a stint as A-mei's keyboardist for her tours in 1998 and 1999. He says: "That was super good training because I wasn't the music director, so I could observe everything from the back."

His schedule has been jam-packed since, with concerts for the likes of singers such as Singapore's Kit Chan, Tao, Wang, Lin and Cheung.

Somehow, he also found the time to serve as music director for national events such as the National Day Parade (NDP) in 2011 and Chingay Parade from 2015 to this year. Apart from pop songs, he has produced, composed and arranged theme songs for Chingay and NDP (In A Heartbeat, 2011). He has also contributed to musicals such as December Rains (1996) and In Love With Carmen (2004), which starred A-mei, wearing different hats from music arranger to composer.

Tay says: "We talked about taking a break one or two years ago and maybe tour the world. But when jobs come along, it's not because they pay well, but because his passion for music is such that he wants to do them.

"For someone who's been performing so long, he still wakes up every morning to practise his scales."

Goh adds: "To be honest, I'm paranoid about the day I wake up and don't want to play. We are only as good as our next project."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 20, 2017, with the headline 'Music-maker for the stars'. Subscribe